For the Birds Radio Program: Ovenbird and Vireo
Laura talks about two birds that live by the exact opposite of the rule, “Children should be seen but not heard.”
When I was a little girl my father often said, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Two of the most common birds in summer forests and woodlots live by the exact opposite rule. We hear them loud and clear, but have a heck of a time catching a glimpse of either.
The Red-eyed Vireo and Ovenbird both belt out their songs with a volume that belies their small size. They each measure 6 inches in length and are fairly nondescript. The vireo is greenish gray above, white below, with a dark gray cap outlined with black, black eyeline, and ruby red eye. The ovenbird is greenish brown above, white spotted with black below, with a rusty cap outlined in black, and a white eye ring encircling its black eye. Both birds are what neophyte birders often refer to as “LBJ’s,” or “little brown jobs.”
Although it looks thrush-like, the Ovenbird is a true warbler, but the Red-eyed Vireo, despite its resemblance to a Tennessee Warbler, isn’t at all related to warblers. Both birds carry nicknames of human occupations–the Ovenbird is often referred to as the “teacher-bird” because it seems to say “Teacher, Teacher, TEACHER! TEACHER!” over and over. But this is one teacher who doesn’t understand accent marks-it actually seems to say “teaCHER, teaCHER teaCHER!” It takes its real name from its nest, which is shaped like an old-fashioned oven. But a real Ovenbird’s nest wouldn’t pass modem fire codes to serve as housing, much less an oven.
The Red-eyed Vireo is often called the “preacher-bird,” not because its song rhymes with the Ovenbird’s, but because it drones on endlessly, long after other birds have quieted for the day, pausing frequently as if for dramatic emphasis. The tonal quality of this vireo is similar to the robin, and its songs sound like a robin’s long sentences only broken up into short phrases.
To see either in the woods takes a little diligence and perseverance, but is far from impossible. Both move slowly and deliberately compared to other small songbirds, and so it’s tricky to detect them without patience. The male Red-eyed Vireo spends a lot of time in the canopy of deciduous woods, blending in remarkably well with the leaves. The female spends most of her time at nest-height, only 5-10 feet up, but since she’s quiet and secretive, she’s seen even less often than her mate . Ovenbirds often sing at eye-level, but blend in so well and move so little that they are hard to spot. They usually sit in large horizontal limbs, preferring to keep their feet reasonably flat rather than grasped around a thin twig. More Ovenbirds are seen, dead, under picture windows, than alive in the woods. For some reason they are unusually vulnerable to human structures–windows, skyscrapers, and radio and TV transmission towers. If they had a motto, it probably would be “Bonk!” They also have problems with cats and cowbirds. Cats kill them outright, and cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests, seriously reducing their reproductive success. Vireos have less trouble with cats, staying higher up in the trees, but have the same problems with cowbird nest parasitism.
It’s hard to believe that two small, nondescript birds that are hardly ever seen could have a profound impact on the quality of life in the Northland, but the insistent calls for “Teacher!Teacher, TEACHER!” and the cheerful homilies of the preacher bird give our summer days a joyful ring that could never be replaced.